Tag Archives: Barbican Theatre

“The Tempest” at the Barbican

If you ever needed a reason to forgive computer company Intel for its annoyingly catchy ad jingle then its collaboration with the RSC is it. A large team, working with designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, has added ground- breaking effects to Gregory Doran’s production of Shakespeare’s late romance, and the result is a big theatrical event.

It’s a good choice of play to unleash the clever technical trickery on. From the shipwreck that sends Prospero’s enemies into his territory, the island becomes awash with projections. And spirits really do melt into air in the case of Ariel, played by Mark Quartley, as a live motion capture suit is employed on stage for the first time. The resulting imagery is appropriate and surely becomes more and more impressive if you understand how difficult it all is. Even so, the designers might be a tad aggrieved to know that all eyes are really on the live actor. Quartley gives a sensitive performance of remarkable physicality that doesn’t really need assistance.

The tech goes to town with the masque that Prospero conjures, its design based on Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’ work, so that part of the play that can drag looks great. But again, beyond the spectacle, it’s the basics of the show that really work. A large cast of spirits add immeasurably and this is truly an island “full of noises” with a strong score composed by Paul Englishby that combines a variety of genres.

There’s a glitch in the application, too. The autochthonous Caliban could be the key to the island but he isn’t granted any modern magic. This rationale makes sense but it makes the character out of place, with no link to his inheritance – surely a missed opportunity? It’s a game performance from Joe Dixon, but the monster costume, the only foot Brimson Lewis puts wrong, suggests the aim is to get some laughs – what else can an actor do if he gets given a fish as a prop?

The key ingredient isn’t the intel inside but Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. Directed as a family drama, the relationship with Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda – an excellent performance – is deeply moving. Similarly, as his treacherous brother, Jonathan Broadbent makes a role often forgotten memorable. A complex relationship with Ariel, suggesting a substitute son, is also explored.

Russell Beale can be magisterial with ease but focuses on Prospero’s neurotic moments. The all-powerful magus sees his plan on a knife-edge, adding excitement to the production. This Prospero has many a mini breakdown, as the tension of plotting gets the better of him – at one point he even screams, and the prospect of changing overwhelms him. Doran was clearly sensitive to the possible drawbacks of a high-tech collaboration. Never losing sight of the fine cast here, his supervision shows a calm hand at the helm.

Until 18 August 2017

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Topher McGrillis

“King Lear” at the Barbican

Gregory Doran and Antony Sher consistently turn out gold-standard work for the RSC. Their latest offering from Stratford is Shakespeare’s tragic monarch – a big challenge no matter how good your credentials – and they deliver in predictably impeccable style. Here, Lear is presented as a pagan priest. With Celtic touches from designerNiki Turner and an imperiousness from Sher that few could match, exhortations to the gods make a lot of sense. And there are plenty of well-used supernumeraries: Lear’s “insolent retinue” of Knights are out in force, while the unwashed masses that the king has neglected are there from the start. The additions, on top of traditional foundations, ensure interest and create a grand scale.

Despite Doran’s keen eye on the extras, Sher’s Lear has been allowed to overpower the production. The rest of the cast includes some fine performances, but other roles struggle to make a mark. One exception is Antony Byrne’s Kent, whose transformation into Caius is so fine that you almost believe he’s unrecognisable. Another is Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund. The parallel plot of the elderly Gloucester’s trials and his bastard son’s betrayal is delivered with intelligence and vigour. Essiedu joins the list of ones to watch.

As for Sher in the title role, while it has to be admitted that he takes few gambles, his delivery never fails. This is a physically frail old king, whose movements seem limited and difficult. Oddly, this fails to generate the sympathy you might expect and means tension slacks at some points when Lear should still seem capable of violent assault. But it’s a classy affair with key speeches marked out (it’s easy to imagine the pages turned down in a copy of the text), and Sher always sounds splendid. His charismatic presence further consolidates our monumental impression of this colossal production.

Until 23 December 2016

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

“Table Top Shakespeare” at the Barbican

Shakespeare with a cast of condiments sounds simply daft. Presented on a desk, as advertised, bottles and objects make their entrances and exits, standing in for the characters, controlled by a single performer who retells the plot of the play. That all this is perilously close to parody can’t be lost on Forced Entertainment, the company responsible for hosting the whole of Shakespeare’s canon in this fashion. There’s a reverential air to the hour-long retellings that raises an ironic smile. But against the odds, it’s all strangely compelling and affords an insight into the plays that makes it a tremendous theatrical experience in its own right.

The performance I attended was Richard II. The monarch was a bottle of water, his attendants salt and pepper pots. Terry O’Connor recounted events slowly and carefully, occasionally pointing out famous lines. The retelling isn’t as neutral as it seems – alongside O’Connor’s engaging and clear delivery – there’s a subtle commentary added. Forced Entertainment’s technique exposes the mechanics of the play’s construction, which proves enlightening. Bereft of alarums and excursions, it’s an intense experience. The objects, empowered by your imagination, hold attention with surprising force – I don’t think I have ever felt so much for the role of Richard’s queen – here a cut-glass vase. Brilliantly simple and simply brilliant.

Until 6 March 2016

www.forcedentertainment.com

 

“Henry V” at the Barbican

Reprising his role as Hal, after last year’s turn in Henry IV Parts I & II, Alex Hassell ascends to the throne in a Christmas treat for Londoners from the RSC. Gregory Doran directs, offering a fulsome and classy production. Hassell is a suitably thorough performer. Strongest when showing the nervousness of a new monarch dwelling on the morality of war, his transformation into a convincing martial leader is a carefully paced achievement.

Doran’s populous show looks and sounds great. There’s an exhibition about the gorgeous lighting, designed by Tim Mitchell, in the Barbican’s foyer space. Period instruments and a beautifully sung Te Deum (performed by Helena Raeburn) are highlights. Most memorable is an avuncular performance from Oliver Ford Davies as the chorus. Placed to the fore, his humorous calls to our imagination give the show a surprising intimacy and his modesty makes a pleasant foil to the production’s grandeur.

This is a long Henry V. Scenes of light relief are given plenty of time: one section of Act 3 Scene 2, often discarded, has not just an Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman but also a Welshman thrown together for fun (Joshua Richards’ Fluellen is satisfying throughout the show). And Doran wants to address the peace as much as the war – perhaps a little more than Shakespeare can be bothered with. The romance between Henry and Kate is rather dragged out (despite Jennifer Kirby’s charming Katherine) and Jane Lapotaire’s Queen Isobel takes centre stage for a speech on the state of France that is, again, sometimes skipped. Even though you might be left agreeing with productions that condense the action, this luxury edition of the show drips quality.

Until 19 December 2015. The King and Country four play cycle of productions, including Richard II, will be performed in January 2016.

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Keith Pattison

“‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore” at the Barbican

The Cheek By Jowl theatre company can’t come to London often enough for my liking – its visits are anticipated events. Touring to the Barbican for the last few years, this month it stages Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and revives its 2011 production of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. The latter is a vivid adaptation of the bloody incest tragedy, filled with modern choreography and startling music. And it revels in the horror and gore.

Ford doesn’t hold back. Nor does director Declan Donnellan, who towers over the show, or designer Nick Ormerod, who has created eye-popping imagery. Set in the teenage Annabella’s bedroom, with its vampire posters and red décor (she even drinks cranberry juice), this is the scene of her coupling with her brother Giovanni, a nuptial night from hell with her husband Soranzo and the many schemes that fill the play. The bed is always centre-stage: cavorted on, plotted on, the locale for sex and violence. With red sheets, of course.

Donnellan’s committed cast gives exhaustive performances. Orlando James and Eve Ponsonby are the siblings and their delivery of the text, combined with their physicality, is impressive. Ponsonby does particularly well when it comes to her character’s eventual remorse and fear, while James excels as Giovanni moves from “unsteady youth” to avenging madman. Maximelien Seweryn’s Soranzo and his servant, Will Alexander’s Vasques, make a virile team. Smaller female roles, increased in importance, make the big difference in this particular production. Annabella’s servant, played by Nicola Sanderson, becomes a key role as a foil to the tragedy. Ruth Everett is superb as Soranzo’s spurned lover, an appropriately overblown performance that includes a masterclass in moans.

With Cheek By Jowl on board, the play becomes strangely sexy. Tableaux that summarise Ford’s world view, and make a virtue of unsubtlety, make for startling theatre. The production is frank and brutal. It creates a real sense of the danger surrounding lust. There are moments of excess (I am not sure a stripper was called for) but this is another fine production from master theatremakers. With a clear, boldly abbreviated text, it’s precisely directed and full of memorable imagery.

Until 26 April 2014

www.barbican.org.uk

Written 13 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Barbican

Justly world famous for its work on War Horse, the Handspring Puppet Company has joined forces again with director Tom Morris for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that visits the Barbican this week. But what to do with a play that contains a donkey instead of a horse? Handspring’s solution is so audacious it caused audible gasps from a school party in the audience. Joey the noble stallion, this ass ain’t. And, without spoiling the surprise, the ingenious and mischievous approach sums up the spirit of this superb production.

A transformed Bottom, performed superbly by Miltos Yerolemou, leads workmen looking a little like East End hipsters, who are the funniest I’ve seen. Fast and loose with the text, these joyous “hempen homespuns” are the flashiest point in a thoughtful show that reworks the play from the ground up with the puppetry provoking depth and insight. One note, this is a production that benefits from a close knowledge of the play – although the rewards are too numerous to make any excuse for this warning.

The puppeteer actors are tremendous. Of particular note are a hilarious Hermia (Akiya Henry) and the stunning Saskia Portway who takes on the roles of Hippolyta and Titania. But this is a true ensemble piece, with most of the cast on stage most of the time, and Morris ensures that the puppetry infuses rather then overpowers the show.

And yet the puppetry is revelatory. Simple materials belie Handspring’s ambition, a challenge to the audience, to see how minimal they can be. Puck is an assortment of objects, engendered by no fewer than three performers. Planks of wood are given life by the whole cast, like some giant Cornelia Parker sculpture, to form the forest outside Athens, making it a living character in the piece.

Introducing a sense of animism is the show’s master strategy. The idea that spirits inhabit all kinds of objects makes this fairy world more vivid than we are used to: a dangerous, serious place that is magical and mysteriously real. Fly to get a ticket.

Until 15 February 2014

www.barbican.org

Written 11 February 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Master and Margarita” at the Barbican

Mikhail Bulagakov’s classic novel, The Master and Margarita, is a work known for its complexity. A satire, full of politics and philosophy, it is marked by what has come to be known as magical realism. With the action moving speedily between the trial of Christ and Stalin’s Moscow, and a cast including the devil and his cat, it’s easy to see why many would regard it as unstageable. But Simon McBurney, and his theatre company Complicite, love a challenge and this production shows that, as they approach their 30th anniversary, they are at the top of their game: drawing out the theatricality in the book, enjoying the farce, and injecting drama into the fantasy elements of the story.

Marked by a level of accomplishment that is truly breathtaking the action is presented with invention and wit. The set, designed by Es Devlin, is a facade of houses onto which some of the finest video work I’ve seen on stage is screened. Not content with this, McBurney uses the floor of the stage, filming live and projecting onto the walls; it’s appropriately disorientating and makes the production seem bigger than the theatre itself. The lighting from Paul Anderson is an essential part of the show, used with intelligence to great effect.

But no matter how stunning the show looks it would be just a bag of tricks without the acting that accompanies it. The text, devised by McBurney with Edward Kemp and the company, moves at a great pace, with short scenes that require instant emotions in surreal circumstances. Tim McMullan is so powerful as Pontius Pilate he seems to anchor the whole show and, taking the title role of The Master, Paul Rhys gives a stunning performance. Susan Lynch, who plays Margarita, shows great bravery (not least since she spends a good deal of the play naked) with the emotional rawness she brings to the part. Lynch and the company manage to make the story of The Master and Margarita, and the idea that is should appear on stage, believable.

Until 19 January 2013

barbican.org

Photo by Bohumil Kostohryz

Written 21 December 2012 for The London Magazine

“Mademoiselle Julie” at the Barbican

The Barbican offers Londoners yet another chance to see the very best of world theatre with French director Frédéric Fisbach’s bold new version of August Strindberg’s Mademoiselle Julie. Though written during its author’s naturalistic period, the production points to Strindberg’s later expressionist works and employs the conceit of updating the setting, if not the manners, of the story. The action starts with a wild celebration of Midsummer, with the mad mademoiselle defying convention to dance with the servants, to a pop music soundtrack, before bedding her father’s valet. Maybe I’ve been to too much theatre and too few parties, but this is a night like no other, with one guest dressed as an albino Wizbit and another wearing a bunny rabbit head.

There are some pretentious moments in Fisbach’s production but these can be forgiven for the French sophistication so palpably on offer. Artist Laurent P Berger’s set is a minimalist marvel (you can tell the guy has been hanging around white cubes), being part playground, part prison, with partitions to mirror the private and public power play Mademoiselle Julie is so full of. And Berger fully exploits the emotional potential of light and colour – no question that this show looks amazing.

The set is a work of art in its own right, but the draw for many will be superstar Juliette Binoche in the title role. She does not disappoint. Her Julie’s lust for life appeals but she really excels suggesting Julie’s thanatotic edge. In addition, Binoche enables Strindberg’s period details to retain their force – in both the shame and the erotic frisson that comes from a seduction between the social classes. As her lover, Nicolas Bouchaud does a superb job, suggesting his character’s complexity with a potential for violence that’s decidedly kinky – there’s boot licking and animal sacrifice, for heaven’s sake – but always riveting. I’m not sure about that rabbit though.

Until 29 September 2012

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage Festival d’Avignon

Written 21 September 2012 for The London Magazine

“Big and Small” at the Barbican

Among the many unmissable opportunities the Cultural Olympiad gives Londoners is the chance to see the renowned Sydney Theatre Company at the Barbican. Their star supporter, indeed Artistic Director, Cate Blanchett is performing, so no wonder its production of Big and Small is a hot ticket.

Don’t get too excited. Big and Small, originally Gross und Klein, is by the influential German playwright Botho Strauss and it is difficult stuff. It’s about, well, everything: big issues like society and the environment as well as how we experience the world epistemically. It’s difficult to describe without using big words – maybe it’s just about a woman who goes mad. In a series of disjointed, distinctly odd, scenes we see our heroine Lotte deal with a “sick minded” world and face rejection from friends, flatmates, lovers and family. For Lotte there is “disaster everywhere”.

Naturally, all eyes are on Blanchett. Lotte is a daring role for an actress to take on: childlike in her naivety, she becomes a kind of prophet with a belief she is one of the “righteous”. She has to be both an enigma and an everywoman. Blanchett prowls around with lots of “heavy breathing shit” and manages to do so convincingly: if she can talk to God then why shouldn’t she do so dancing, wearing a sequined dress and a crash helmet. It is a sense of fun, and some remarkable comic timing, that allows Blanchett’s star appeal to illuminate this occasionally opaque play.

The production is impeccably directed by Benedict Andrews. And it looks great with Johannes Schütz’s slick minimal design lit superbly by Nick Schlieper. The brave ensemble is precise, bold and committed. Even if you can’t quite keep up with the crazy antics you are sure to be impressed. Martin Crimp’s English text feels swift and sure and makes the most of the humour in the piece, managing to defeat a lot of the pretentiousness.

Until 29 April 2012

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Lisa Tomassetti

Written 18 April 2012 for The London Magazine

“The New World Order” at Shoreditch Town Hall

Promenade theatre has been fashionable for several years now. Theatre practitioners often want us to leave our comfy auditoriums and test an audience’s dedication by taking it to new and often less salubrious locations. It’s best to be agnostic about the practice but Hydrocracker has a production of five short Harold Pinter plays, presented as The New World Order, which is worth going a long way for.

Certainly, at least as far as Shoreditch Town Hall. After being frisked and given identity cards, the audience is taken to meeting rooms and then travels down to the building’s scruffy basement, shovelling around its seemingly labyrinthine rooms. The constant theme is Pinter’s nightmarish vision of a state slipping into totalitarianism. The short plays unfold with increasing violence and fit well with the promenade format, but that is the only comfortable thing about the evening – this is powerful political theatre.

Whether The New World Order is more forceful because of this format is an open question. Director Ellie Jones does a superb job: not only in marshalling the audience (although it must help to have a cast playing soldiers who can shout at people) but also in maintaining tension, atmosphere and linking the scenes. Nonetheless, the complicity with the soldiers that is hinted at can’t really grow. You are given the chance to try and help one of those held prisoner but few will, not because they are unfeeling, but for fear of disrupting the performance. Putting actors into the audience never really works – you can sense them a mile off! And while the often incredibly close proximity to the action is intense, it can be intimidating which, sadly, stifles Pinter’s savage humour.

Jones’ direction is impressive because she appreciates the urgency of Pinter’s late political writing. As a recent production at The Print Room demonstrated, these plays are strong enough to be performed with minimal sets, and Jones anchors her work in the script, bringing out a stringent performance from Hugh Ross, who plays the terrifying Minister of Cultural Integrity, and a small but remarkable cameo from Jane Wood. And Jones has a final trick up her sleeve: as one of the victims is released, the audience follows him into the night. This denies the cast its well-deserved applause, yet provokes thought on the long journey home.

Until 11 December 2011

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Matthew Andrews

Written 21 November 2011 for The London Magazine